Grand Banks

views updated May 23 2018


GRAND BANKS. Several parts of the continental shelf off the eastern coast of North America lie under less than six hundred feet of water. Covering over fifty thousand square miles, Newfoundland's Grand Banks is the most extensive of these areas. Here, conditions favor the growth of phytoplankton, minute organisms which are the first link in a food chain that includes a small fish known as capelin, northern cod, and humans. In the spring, the cod pursue the capelin when they move close to the coast to spawn. It is here, inshore, that people have been fishing for cod for the longest time. Whether aboriginal Newfoundlanders, who first arrived five thousand years ago, fished for cod is unclear. According to a 1529 account, the Beothuks did not do so. Possibly on the basis of information dating from the earlier Viking voyages to Newfoundland and points beyond around a.d. 1000, English and Portuguese vessels seem to have happened upon these fishing grounds even before the official discoverer of Newfoundland, John Cabot, noted their fabulous abundance in 1497. Soon, fishers and merchants from the European Atlantic kingdoms had developed a seasonal inshore fishery producing for southern European markets. In this "dry" fishery, crews split, salted, and dried the cod on shore over the summer before returning to Europe. Beginning around 1550, the French pioneered the "wet" or "green" fishery on the Banks proper, heavily salting the cod on board and returning home directly. By the 1570s, hundreds of vessels and thousands of men were active in the two fisheries.

In the seventeenth century, some of the French and English who now dominated the fishery began wintering in Newfoundland. French residents were forced to leave the island in the eighteenth century, although the French migrant fishery continued in northern Newfoundland. By 1815, English-speaking Newfoundlanders had largely replaced English migrant fishers inshore. Offshore, schooners based in New England and Newfoundland had begun to make inroads on the Europeans vessels' share of the catch. By the later nineteenth century, the Europeans were generally French, and Brazil had joined Europe and the Caribbean as a major market. Pressure on the resource would increase over the long term. But it was no doubt twentieth-century technology, especially the voracious factory-freezer ship introduced in the 1950s, that put it at risk. Europeans, some of them from as far away as Russia, returned in force to the Banks and even inshore in the post–World War II period, catching unprecedented quantities of an already dwindling fish stock. Catches of cod peaked in the late 1960s. Experts continue to weigh the long-term effects of climatic change on cod populations, but they now agree that overfishing was the primary factor in the decline of the inshore and Banks fisheries. International fisheries organizations and even the Canadian government, which imposed a two-hundred-mile management zone covering most of the Grand Banks in 1977, were slow to act decisively to conserve the resource. By 1992, the stock was so depleted that Canada was forced to close its Grand Banks fishery, putting thousands out of work. Reopened in the late 1990s, the cod fishery operates in the early twenty-first century on a severely reduced scale. Recovery, if it happens at all, will take decades. Meanwhile, in 1997, a consortium of companies began tapping another of the Banks' riches, the vast Hibernia oil field, discovered in 1979.


Gentilcore, R. Louis, ed. Historical Atlas of Canada. Vol. 2, The Land Transformed, 1800–1891. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Harris, Michael. Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1998.

Historical Atlas of Canada. Vol.1, From the Beginning to 1800. Vol. 2, The Land Transformed, 1800–1891. Vol. 3, Addressing the Twentieth Century, 1891–1961. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, 1990, 1993.

Marshall, Ingeborg. A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.

Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen. Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Wright, Miriam. A Fishery for Modern Times: The State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934–1968. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


See alsoCod Fisheries .

Grand Banks

views updated May 18 2018


Grand Banks are a shallow section of the northern Atlantic Ocean, lying east and south of Newfoundland, Canada, and extending about 350 miles (563 kilometers) from east to west. The ocean is shallow here because of underwater plateaus, called banks. After the Vikings explored the region around a.d. 1000, fishermen from Basque (northern Spain) also sailed the Grand Banks as they searched for whales. In the late 1300s other European fishermen may have sailed here as well, skimming the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and possibly going ashore for food, to make repairs, or to trade with the natives. By the early 1500s more fleets were attracted to the rich fishing grounds. By the end of the century fishing villages were established on Newfoundland. American and Canadian fleets relied on the Grand Banks as a major source of codfish during colonial times. The area is still fished today, but the Canadian government carefully monitors it to avoid depletion of its stock.

See also: Fishing (Commercial), L'Anse aux Meadows

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Grand Banks

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